The Dumbest Things We Believe About Historical Clothing Thanks To Pop Culture
Ancient Romans always wore togas, Scottish men always wore kilts, and 19th-century women stuffed themselves into painful corsets. At least, that's the impression historically inaccurate costumes in movies and TV shows give about past fashion trends. The worst historical movie costumes just ignore history completely - no, William Wallace didn't wear a kilt, even if Mel Gibson does in Braveheart.
Sometimes bad historical costumes make sense. If every film set in the 19th century used historically accurate bonnets, for example, they'd be hard to watch. But even these understandable choices leave viewers with some pretty silly beliefs about the past.
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Medieval Knights Charged Into Battle Without HelmetsPhoto: Kingdom of Heaven / 20th Century Fox
Two armies face each other down across a bare field of grass. In moments, their weapons will clash and blood will spill. And beforehand, warriors let the breeze waft through their hair rather than put on a helmet.
In reality, medieval soldiers, whether they were knights or infantrymen, protected their heads. As the Met Museum points out, a lot of tropes about historical armor are "utter nonsense, devoid of any historical base." You can put helmets in this category. Mercenaries, mounted knights, and even archers made sure to protect themselves before fighting, even if they didn't have much money. At the very least, soldiers wore a helmet of some kind.
It makes sense that Hollywood would leave out the helmets, or have them conveniently knocked off from time to time - after all, you can't tell whether that's Orlando Bloom running across the field under a thick helmet - but it definitely gives the wrong impression about actual armor.
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Puritans Always Dressed In BlackPhoto: The Scarlet Letter / Buena Vista Pictures
According to movies, Puritans were very serious people, so they dressed in very serious colors: black with maybe a pop of white. And they often wore identical outfits. Just look at The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible for examples of this historical costume trope.
In reality the Puritans didn't wear matching outfits, and they didn't only wear black. In fact, black dye was so expensive that only wealthier Puritans could afford it. Instead, most Puritans wore brown or dark blue, because those dyes were the cheapest. As for luxuries, Puritans incorporated fur and leather into their clothes because they were inexpensive and common in New England.
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Everyone In Medieval Times Wore Boots All The Time, Even IndoorsPhoto: Anonymous / Sony Pictures Releasing
Boots in the halls, boots in the bedroom, boots in the throne room. In medieval movies, men wear their boots everywhere, regardless of what they're doing.
But in the past, gentlemen put on their boots only for certain outdoor activities like hunting or riding. Indoors, men took off their boots and showed off their calves by wearing stockings and shoes. Heavy boots weren't made for most indoor activities, after all. There's a good reason Hollywood loves boots, though - they're much easier to find and style than authentic medieval hose and leather shoes.
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The Medieval Scots Charged Into Battle In Kilts
Before fighting, medieval Scots sharpened their swords and threw on their kilts. At least that's what you'd assume after watching movies like Braveheart or Highlander. But this is one movie trope that gets history completely wrong.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, when Braveheart is set, Scots didn't wear kilts at all. Even into the 16th century, Scottish warriors weren't wearing kilts. In fact, the Scottish clan tartans that pop up in many historical movies are mainly a 19th century invention. Clans didn't name their official tartans until 1815, and for decades in the 18th century, it was even illegal to wear a kilt.
(Also, medieval Scots didn't wear blue face paint. Ancient Roman accounts of Pict warriors describe body-painting, but that was a thousand years before Wallace's time.)
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Medieval Women (And Men) Were Always Showing Off Tons Of Chest CleavagePhoto: Shakespeare in Love / Miramax Films
Heaving bosoms are a mainstay in historical movies, and even men in historical films show off a lot of chest. Just look at Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love.
But the loose garments in many of these films never would have walked the streets of 16th century London. Fiennes's white shirt is actually his underwear - and people generally didn't show off underwear on the street. As Sarah Lorraine at Frock Flicks puts it, "this would have been the 16th century equivalent of leaving your fly unzipped."
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Everyone In Ancient Rome Wore TogasPhoto: Gladiator / DreamWorks Pictures
According to films like Gladiator, when ancient Romans woke up, they reached for togas. When they met with friends to plot assassinations, they wore togas. And when they attended parades, they put on togas.
But although Romans did wear togas, not everyone wore them, and they didn't wear them all the time. Generally, only male citizens of Rome wore togas, because they were important status symbols. Most togas were white, though some might include a stripe. Only members of the Roman Senate could wear purple togas. And togas were mainly for civic events, including rituals or games. Instead of togas, men in the countryside wore casual robes.